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Ross Stretton resigns

Jane Simpson

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Wow is right!

I'm glad that someone bred in the Royal Ballet's tradition is taking over the company, at least temporarily. I hope she'll be able to steer the company back in the right direction. On the other hand, she's a real MacMillan fan, from what I recall . . .

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Here's a link to the discussion on ballet.co, including a transcript of a radio interview with Sir Colin Southgate, who gives the official position, shall we say, and Ismene Brown, who has a few things to say about that :) THANK YOU, BRENDAN McCARTHY!

The transcript is many posts down, but the whole thread will be of interest to those reading this thread.


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Stretton may not be anyone's dream boss, but it sounds to me as if it's the board's fault, not Stretton's. The things that he's getting the gate for now are things that should have been looked at carefully before he was hired and plainly were not. What a mess.

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Here is BBC Radio 4 Front Row's interview with Sir Colin Southgate:

John Wilson: We start with the news that the revolving door at the Royal Opera House, having been still for a couple of years, has started spinning again. Ross Stretton, the Australian choreographer (sic), brought into lead and modernise the Royal Ballet has quit just weeks after reports that his directorial style was upsetting dancers. In a written statement, Stretton says he 'wants to develop the future of ballet', but doesn't explain why he couldn't do that in Covent Garden. On this programme recently we reported that the contentious casting decisions by Stretton had led to calls from dancers for a vote of no confidence in their artistic director. A short while ago I asked the Royal Opera House Chairman, Sir Colin Southgate, for his version of events.

Sir Colin Southgate: There's a lot of difference between a classical company and a non-classical company. I mean a lot of the ballet that we put on, which we're renowned for, as other ballet companies in the world are renowned for, are the classical productions that have been developed over the last thirty, forty, fifty years.

But he knew what sort of company you were, when he joined?

I suppose he did, but the answer to that is that he came here obviously with that knowledge but, you know, he thought he could move the thing beyond that at a faster pace, than he could. Therefore that's not really satisfactory...

Just as he knew what sort of ballet company you were, you knew what sort of ballet choreographer (sic) he was?

Absolutely true. We knew his background very well. We obviously investigated his background very well.

Has he resigned, or has he been sacked?

He's resigned.

He hasn't been sacked? My understanding is that this isn't just about artistic issues?

Really? The ballet world is full of gossip.

It's not just gossip.

As far as I am concerned, he has resigned and he has gone with good grace and from both sides.

My understanding is that he had a volatile relationship, not only with the dancers, but with senior managers, sponsors and other people connected with the ballet.

No. I don't think he had ---- if you don't think artistic people don't have volatile relationships, you had better check around a bit more. Everybody has some fairly hot relationships. That's what the artistic world is all about. It was no worse or better than anyone else.

But it is true to say, isn't it, that several weeks ago the ballet dancers themselves were pressing for a vote of no confidence in him, and their union advised them against it. That is true isn't it?

Yea - the ballet world always are pressing for different things. At the end of the season, they had been on a six week tour, they had been absolutely exhausted, they'd worked very hard and they were interested in a different method of scheduling, which, in fact, we have implemented and it has nothing whatsoever to do with Ross Stretton's departure.

Was it a mistake to employ him?

Was it a mistake? The people we interviewed in detail, he was definitely, in the opinion of the interview panel, a man with a lot of the right qualities. The ballet world does not actually, you know, produce managers automatically. The artistic world doesn't do that. You have to be therefore conscious that some of these things don't work out as well as you would like them to work out.

You say it's with deep regret that you accept his resignation, but it must also be with deep regret that you employed him in the first place ?

(Laughter) Well, I'm sure you will read into it what you would like, but as far as I'm concerned, the employment of Ross Stretton was handled carefully. We did everything we needed to do to check it out. And, you know, it's just one of those things that hasn't worked out.

Just to get to the core of this issue? What is the main reason he has gone?

I've just given you that. He has resigned, because he doesn't actually enjoy the mixture of the classical work with his objectives for taking ballet forward.

So it's an artistic reason then?

Artistic reasons - from his point of view.

Sir Colin Southgate, Chairman of the Royal Opera House. I'm joined now by Ismene Brown, the dance critic for the Telegraph. This is a sudden departure, but not entirely unexpected is it?

Ismene Brown: Not unexpected at all. This is an expected resignation and I think that it's been expected for the last couple of months. Really, the rumours of increasing dissatisfaction among the dancers, the heavy criticism, really, of Ross Stretton's artistic approach have really combined for it to make it impossible for him to stay on. He was quite clearly the wrong man for the job and I think Sir Colin Southgate and the board would be right to sound very sheepish. Because, when he was appointed, he was appointed precisely because he knew almost nothing about the company and they thought this would be valuable - a fresh eye from the outside world.

What do you make of Sir Colin's point that his approach was wrong: that the Royal Ballet was almost too classical for him to handle?

I don't buy that, I'm afraid. The thing is that Stretton was actually appointed on the grounds of being a moderniser. What has really gone wrong is that he hasn't proved a moderniser. He has actually shrunk the opportunities for new work in the company and vastly increased the runs of classics. He has also further reduced the runs of programmes, the Royal Ballet has been doing. Even under his predecessor, Sir Anthony Dowell, who was thought of as conservative, the number of programmes was 14 to 15 a year. This year there are just 10 and as they get nearly £10 million a year in subsidy, that represents a million pounds spent for every first night that you see. Now I think that a lot of people would say that wasn't particularly good value for money. Another problem, I think, is that Stretton himself didn't realise that he could have been a great deal more ambitious than he was. It isn't as if the Royal Ballet is a stagnant classical company with no repertory. The point is that there is a large repertory that it could draw from, that it hasn't done, and it is very adventurous repertory that Anthony Dowell had been neglecting. There is every good reason for bringing in ballets from outside.

There has been recent calm at the Opera House, does this move signal new chaos?

I think it does in that it has shown, above all, that the board proved itself quite inadequate at appointing the right person for the job. One has to hope that they look at themselves very very carefully because Ross Stretton's failure is their failure. It comes down to their doorstep. They have got to choose the next man right and it is absolutely essential in a ballet company - the fame of a ballet company is difficult to maintain; it is a delicate and fragical thing and the next person has to be chosen because he or she has to understand what matters inside the company, what makes it unique in the world, not try to turn it into a sort of internationalised all-purpose company the way Stretton did.

Ismene Brown, thank you very much

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Thank you very much for posting this, Brendan. Very interesting reading. I'm struck by Brown's comments about the problems with the repertory. I think she says it quite succinctly.

Those interested in this issue will want to check today's Links threads, which have a lot of articles from the NYTimes, British, and Australian papers.

I'd also lilke to add a word about "press bashing." I think this is partly a misunderstanding about the way the press operates, and I think it's unfair. First off, there's no "the press." There's no gang of people who have a meeting and say, "Right. Let's get that Aussie outsider and tell him who's boss." That's nonsense. "The press" is a collection of individuals who often make a point of never talking to each other so that there is no influence. The worst thing that can happen to a writer is that you have what you think is a brilliant, original thought, and hear someone else say the same thing at intermission. If you print it, he'll think you stole it from him, and vice versa.

Second, most people, even the most avid balletgoers, don't have access to the same kind of background information that writers do, and/or often aren't interested in it -- why should they care about the repertory record that X had two companies ago in the 1980s? It doesn't matter unless or until there's a crisis in one's home company.

But think of it in the political context. Mr. Fish, the man nominated to be head of the Environmental Protection Agency, say, is on record as saying there are already too many trees, and that laws protecting the environment are death to big business. He's a lumber company executive. You are an environmentalist -- or you're completely neutral on the issue, but you do have a vague idea that the purpose of the Environmental Protection Agency is to protect the environment. You read his statements, look at his background, and you say, "Hey! Wait a minute here! This is a bad appointment!!!" And he takes office and begins doing exactly what he said he would do -- cut down lots of trees, and propose the repeal of the Clean Water Act. When that falls through, he simply stops enforcing water safety regulations.

You report on all of this, action by action. Are you Fish bashing? Are you not giving him a fair chance? Did you make up your mind beforehand and are just writing things so that you look smart? No. You've done your homework and are reporting on what is happening.

If environmentalism doesn't work for you, try this one. You're a liberal and the head of Health and Human Services says, "The poor are poor through their own fault. Get a job." Or you're a conservative who is concerned about the country's defenses and is alarmed by the new Secretary of Defense who says he's going to bring the army into the future and then begins to cancel contract after contract for new weapons and closes bases.

Point being, there's a difference between researching something, understanding the whole picture (or trying to) and seeing where each piece of the puzzle fits into that picture and then writing about it, and feeling cross one morning and deciding to go out and "bash" somebody. The purpose of the press, if it has one, is to sound the alarm while there are still trees. I admire the British critics for speaking their minds -- something everyone who has yet responded on the thread "What should a hometown critic do?" has advocated, by the way :)

[And these are overstated analogies, of course. I don't mean to suggest that Mr. Stretton's situation was as stark as my analogies.]

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Now that Monica Mason is the interim director of the Royal Ballet, there is speculation about what artistic choices she will make in the short term. The Royal Opera House's management will take its time about making a new appointment. Few candidates 'tick all the boxes'. While there are several candidates who have the appropriate artistic background, for the most part they lack management experience. After Stretton, the issue of proven managerial competence will rank very high in the search committee's minds.

Monica Mason's roots in the Royal Ballet could scarcely be deeper. When Lincoln Kirstein spoke of ballet's "apostolic succession", he could almost have had her in mind. Last year I watched her teach the role of the Firebird to Mara Galeazzi. Mason had learnt the role from Fonteyn, who had in turn learnt it from Karsavina, the first Firebird. It was the most vivid demonstration imaginable of ballet tradition being handed across the generations.

She takes over the Royal Ballet's direction during the commemorative year for Kenneth MacMillan. She was The Chosen One in his Rite of Spring. Later he asked her to be his special assistant. Her knowledge of his ballets is consummate and she remains one of his strongest advocates.

She cannot have been altogether happy with the Royal Ballet's plans to commemorate Kenneth MacMillan, and, in particular, with Ross Stretton's declared view was that MacMillan's one-act works were not really suitable for the Royal Opera House's main stage. It is highly likely that she is investigating her options for an enhanced tribute which would include some of the one-act pieces.

If the Royal Ballet's search committee acts as slowly and as deliberately as I think it will, It will probably fall to Monica Mason to make the decisions about the repertory for the year 2003-2004.

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Thanks for that information about Monica Mason, Brendan.

I'd be surprised if the new director were not given a hand in choosing repertory. He/she can be brought in as a consultant the season before for things like this, and I think that's the way it's generally done. It's nice to think that we can count on the powers that be at Covent Garden to make a slow, reasoned choice :)

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The reason I suggested that the new season would be a fait accompli for a new director is that it is usually announced in March. I will be surprised if a new director has been chosen by then. Even if one is announced in January/February, I should have thought that the lead times were so long, that planning for the coming season will be 'locked in' by the time of an announcement. As it is, I suspect Monica Mason will have charge of the company for some considerable time.

The Royal Ballet is well used to pro tem arrangements. It still awaits a music director to replace Andrea Quinn. An announcement was supposed to await the arrival of the Royal Opera House's new music director, Tony Pappano. It will now, presumably, be further delayed until a ballet director is in place.

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Golly, I go to London and see NYCB dancers for one night, turn my back and look what happens!;) Shocking news. I really am shocked to the core. It is sad about Ross Stretton only staying for a year. Were the problems really insurmountable? I'm glad Monica Mason is in charge though - I really like her.:)

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Ismene Brown gets to the bottom of things in the Telegraph:

Double whammy that toppled ballet boss

On Tuesday afternoon, when the Royal Opera House board met, they believed that there was enough doubt about Stretton's professional relations with junior dancers to make him an unfit steward, despite the refusal of anyone to come forward with specific complaints.

And there was also an ultimatum from Lady MacMillan, a fellow Australian and widow of Sir Kenneth MacMillan, one of the company's two central choreographers, that she would withdraw the Royal Ballet's privileged access to the MacMillan ballets if Stretton remained, because he was proving so poor an artistic curator.

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Gang, good news along the rumour pipeline - see Ismene's Telegraph piece today - Mlle. Guillem may be in the running for Ross Stretton's job !

To give us the full flavour, allow me to quote Ismene's interview with the priestess herself, on March 30th of this year:

"There was also her shocking photo-shoot in French Vogue. It is not unusual to see ballerinas in fashion magazines. They make elfin, maidenly clothes-horses, their modesty in front of the camera radiating a more delicate, timeless sort of femininity. When Guillem did Vogue, she wanted to do something "free and 'appy. Natural, simple, joyful. It was the real me, non?" So she photographed herself in the nude, with not a scrap of make-up on. She was accessorised only by her undressed hair and a bashed camera.

Outrage ricocheted around the world. "I think it was the picture with the two legs apart and the camera in the middle mostly," she says, deadpan."

Taste, style, intelligence, she has everything. And she even knows how to use a camera ! "Natural, simple, joyful".

What in heaven's name is the ROH Board waiting for ?

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My absolutely favorite quote so far is this one, published in The Australian:

"This whole thing has been incredibly upsetting and divisive within the company," says one insider. "People start to wonder how and why they are being judged and cast, and many just didn't know how to react. For one thing, ballerinas are not that used to having heterosexual artistic directors, and the allegations really soured people's attitudes to Ross."

The article is quite interesting, with detals of the final meeting, contract issues, and several quotes from choreographers on the obligations and problems of running a company with a history.


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I thought you'd like this one :) But the idea that if one hires a "heterosexual male," the company automatically becomes his harem and the female dancers should realize this and behave accordingly is absolutely outrageous.

I should add that I picked this sentence out for its content, divorced from the Royal Ballet case. There are whispers of impropriety that have been denied, and no one has spoken of them on the record, which makes them unconfirmed rumors. I'm not trying to discuss that aspect of the issue.

Another point, regarding Ismene Brown's report that Lady MacMillan intervened. What do you think of that? On the one hand, perhaps a good thing, that someone is speaking up for a body of work. On the other, how much power does she/should she have?

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It's difficult to know how to handle the sex thing. On one hand, since actual proof seems not to be available, you could argue that it shouldn't be mentioned. On the other, the company's turmoil is plainly closely connected in part to these allegations, true or no, and it's obvious many believe them. So I think they do have to be reported (although not speculated upon). Otherwise, you have a kind of double standard, where insiders and the press have important knowledge deemed unsuitable for the public.

I also wondered about the role of Lady MacMillan in this. Under these particular circumstances, she looks like a hero; under slightly altered circumstances, however, she might look more like Ron Protas. It is a little worrisome when someone with no connection to the ballet except through marriage has this kind of clout.

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